For the last couple of years, when people asked me where I went to school, I would chime back with Emporia State University and the University of Melbourne. The Melbourne one would catch their attention which would lead to a perplexed look before asking either “Where is that?” or “Australia?.” The conversation would continue for a bit about my days in the land down under and just as the topic would start to conclude, I would add, “Oh yeah, I am also going to the University of Nebraska. Forgot about that one.”
That was the case time and again. Despite the majority of my disposable income and time being sent north of me, my being a UNL student would honestly slip my mind. I am not really sure why. It may be caused by my program (a PhD in Educational Studies – Educational Leadership and Higher Education) being largely online. Sure, since January 2015, there have been a couple of visits to the campus to meet my advisor as well attend a one-day conference for the program, but a bond really had not formed. However, last week happened, everything changed, and I became a Cornhusker.
Online classes are a fascinating development in higher education. For quite a few years, I taught one, and repeatedly, my mission was to try to build a community during that semester. The students mastered the material, wrote great papers, and had great discussions; however, there was no place for the spontaneous conversations to take place. I even made a discussion forum for random topics; most semesters, it was untouched. The students had a mission, which was earn the credit and the learn the material. Many did, but it led to my often telling people that one will never meet a best friend in an online class.
While my statement about meeting a best friend was proven wrong last fall when the amazing Mary came into my life thanks to a group project in our online class (we met in person though thanks to her being in Kansas for a work project), the bond with UNL still hadn’t happened. Then summer I took on the first half of my residency requirement for the program, which led to my spending last week in Lincoln.
Leading up to that week set the stage of what I had decided would be my own adult summer camp. In the spring, I made my second friend in the program, Adam from Boston, in another class during what first began with questions regarding an assignment and later developed into long chats in Google Hangouts after we both realized we had greatly incorrectly stereotyped each other (I thought Adam was a super religious, super conservative Marine, and he thought I was a Palin/Trump Loving Diehard Kansas Tea Party conservative). While trying to figure out our summer schedule, we decided to take the summer research course from our advisor, Dr. Hatch-Tocaimaza.
The rest of the class, with the exception of Boh from Atlantic City, were familiar faces. There was Erika from Salt Lake City who was in the same spring class Adam and I took, and her posts were always top notch and some of the first ones I would read. Then there was Aprí from Santa Cruz, who was another person I had greatly admired over the years thanks to her fantastic discussion posts I always admire in several courses we previously had together. Finally, there was Miles from Longview, Texas. He and I had been group partners before in another class, and we shared some common connections thanks to the honors world.
Although our paths had crossed sometimes repeatedly, connections hadn’t really formed. That all changed with this class. First, the class had live sessions starting back in May, so that gave us a chance to see each other on a regular basis. Then what started as a simple email to ask for clarification led to Erika and I forming a fantastic friendship as we got to know each other via electronic missives. By when it was time to head to Lincoln, I was excited for a vacation that would have me staying in the residence halls and bringing a bike to explore the area.
From my many conversations with Adam and Erika, I knew it was going to be a good week, but I didn’t realize how much. The class itself was great with Dr. Hatch-Tocaimaza bringing in many guest speakers to give us a variety of ideas about how to approach research. The best part, though, was being on campus. There is just something about being in a physical classroom, and it was something I had been missing. Sure enough, spontaneous conversations happened and ideas built upon each other.
Our class also took the opportunity to get to know each other better too. There were the conversations before class, during breaks, at lunch in the Willa Cather Dining Hall, and then afterwards when Adam, Erika, Aprí, Miles, and I would grab dinner each night and then find ice cream (motivated by to Adam’s love for it).
I look back at the week, and so many memories were made beyond those in the classroom itself: meeting Erika and then Adam at the Omaha airport – welcoming both, of course, to Nebraska with a sign before giving them a ride to Lincoln; sitting outside Memorial Stadium with my great friend Rob and hearing about the energy at Cornhusker football games and the day he was crowned homecoming king; walking around Sunken Gardens.
Exploring the stunning capitol building and taking the nifty elevator to some amazing views of the city; watching Aprí and Erika see lightning bugs for the first time; tasting the greatness of sweet corn ice cream from East Campus’s Dairy Store.
Walking in a massive downpour with Adam to retrieve my car so we could pick up the rest of our crew after class to save them from getting drenched; going bowling with Dr. Hatch-Tocaimaza and his adorable son; the heated bowling competition and Aprí sneaking right past Adam and me to win the gold.
Waking up early to explore the bike trails to first Holmes Lake and then to Pioneers Park; Adam (sort of) saving my life; getting a huge hug from Mary when she joined us for our Thursday night adventures; the night of karaoke and finding out Miles is one amazing singer (Mary, Aprí, and Erika were great too)
The late night conversations with Adam in our residence hall room; searching campus for a UNL drawstring bag Adam and I were wanting for running and biking adventures (a huge thanks to the College of Business Administration once again!); strolling down the department’s hallway and office to meet others we knew by name and electronic correspondence but little more; getting a challenge coin; taking a long lunch so we could see the largest urinal west of the Mississippi that just happens to be on UNL’s campus
Hearing about Aprí’s “grandparents” at her Airbnb; a late-night search for the perfect UNL water bottle with Erika and Adam and finding shirts and hats instead; a drive by the community gardens at East Campus and then soon after seeing a herd of deer that seem to live in the middle of Lincoln; seeing the look of happiness on Miles’ face as he showed pictures of his son; the great conversations with Erika when either picking her up or dropping her off at her apartment for the week; and many, many more.
People and memories are what make a place, and both of these came together last week in Lincoln. Going forward, I will be looking at my grad program in a completely different light. Sure enough, I was definitely wrong and one can make fantastic friends in an online program, something I didn’t really see happening when I started the PhD work. Needless to say, I am so glad I was wrong. Now and forever into the future, I will be holding these amazing people and my times in Nebraska close to my heart while also embracing the fact I am indeed a Cornhusker.